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'A Serious Man' Asks More Than It Answers
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (2009)
Howard Schumann (howard16)     Print Article 
Published 2009-11-23 10:09 (KST)   
Howard Schumann rates "A Serious Man" a B-.  <Editor's Note>
"When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, you better find somebody to love."- Jefferson Airplane

A while ago I asked a wise man what the meaning of life was and he said, "Life's a joke and the joke's on us". Well, the joke is on us if we can derive any serious philosophical insights from The Coen Brothers' black comedy A Serious Man, a catalog of the bad things that happen and then happen again to "good" people. Though the film is willing to question what it all means from the Jewish perspective and can be very funny, it is mostly a demeaning exercise that is lacking a profound respect for the power of human beings, Jew or Gentile, to create satisfying and fully productive lives.

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The film opens in a Jewish shtetl in Poland at an unnamed time, telling the story in the best Yiddish tradition of a good natured couple (Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson) who may or may not have invited a dybbuk (the soul of a dead person) into their home. Moving ahead to a suburban Jewish community in Minnesota in the late 1960's that reflects the environment of the Coens' childhood, if there is a logical connection to the Prologue, Physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) may be paying for the curse of his ancestors or a mistake in a previous life. His wife (Sari Lennick) tells him that things have not been going well and that she wants to obtain a "Get", a religious divorce so that she can remarry the recently widowed Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) in a Jewish ceremony.

Before Larry can say Jolly Roger Motel, a Korean student (David Kang) tries to bribe him to change his grade so he can keep his scholarship, his department head tells him there have been anonymous complaints about him that may interfere with his application for tenure, and his dumpy unemployed brother Arthur(Richard Kind) who lives with them is talked to by the police for his gambling and other strange habits. There is also his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) who is saving money for a nose job and Larry's young son Danny (Aaron Wolff) who is having trouble concentrating on his studies for a Bar Mitzvah but not having trouble smoking pot, listening to Jefferson Airplane, or eluding the bully who wants him to return the radio he lent Danny that was confiscated in Hebrew class.

As if these troubles weren't enough, Larry gets repeated calls at work telling him he owes four months of payments for the Columbia Record Club, which he does not remember joining. Though the opening quote from the Jewish philosopher Rashi tells us to "receive with simplicity everything that happens to you," and a junior rabbi wisely tells Larry to change the perspective in which he views events, this wisdom is largely ignored.

Rather than turn inward to see why things are unfolding the way they are, Larry plays the "why me?" game, asking friends, lawyers, a sultry neighbor, and various rabbis, themselves all Jewish caricatures who lack any inner life, why God has turned against him. Rabbi Nachter (George Wyner) tells him about a local Jewish dentist who found Hebrew letters spelling "help me, save me" engraved on the inside of a patient's teeth. The dentist searched for answers but just decided to go on living his life and helping others along the way.

Larry is baffled by this story and conversation. "Why does Hashem (God) make us feel the questions if the answers aren't going to be given?" Once again, the rabbi replies, "I don't know." The Coen Brothers confront the questions but throw up their hands and fall back on the tired advice that ours to not to reason why -- that we must just "accept the mystery."

For the fresh perspective that Larry is seeking, he might have been better advised that the God he is seeking is inside rather than outside and that to turn his life around requires accepting responsibility for what has "gone wrong", communicating it and expanding his power to give and receive love. Unfortunately, the Coen Brothers do not appear to be in a space in which opening one's eyes is a consideration.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Howard Schumann

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